20 long reads to #StayAtHome

A while ago I wrote a post with 10 long reads to make you think, some on the perks of having curiosity, freedom, and ignorance as the pillars of science, some on the scientific publishing industry and the reproducibility crisis, and others on gender bias, career progression, and other topics we don’t openly talk about enough. Since then I’ve continued to slowly populate a bookmark folder with several more articles of this sort. Some I’ve come across on twitter, others I’ve been sent by friends and colleagues, and none of them talk about Covid-19 nor exponentials. All the pieces that end up in this particular bookmark folder tend to be longer than usual, tend to make me think harder than usual, and tend to be thoroughly enjoyable. After finishing them I find myself having learned something new, changed my mind on something I thought I knew, or simply had a great time reading and thinking about something I usually don’t read or think about much. Given that they’ve been sitting in the online void of a bookmark folder for longer than I can remember, I thought now was as good time as any to share them with you. As last time, skip to the end for the list of titles and links. Stay safe everyone!

Sexism and harassment in academia

Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much“. Although the #MeToo campaign has seen many sexual harassers from political and mainstream media spheres being publicly outed, sacked, and prosecuted, the same cannot be said to have happened to “scientist-harassers”. Together with “Enough is Enough: Science, Too, Has a Problem With Harassment“, the authors of these articles detail the main barriers preventing a “true reckoning” from happening and the steps being taken to change that.

On a similar front, “Sexism in the Academy” focuses on how “at each major point of the academic career path, there is significant haemorrhaging of female talent”, and takes us step by step through the many reasons progress in this regard has slowed down, and the numerous ramifications of the academic patriarchy that still dominates science.

On leaving

The articles above make it abundantly clear why many women leave (or are forced out of) academia. On top of all these reasons, many other people leave at different stages due to the lack of financial stability, low salaries, and low probability of finding a permanent position. Despite all this being well known and not a secret at all, there is a surprising reticence of talking about “leaving” science. “Why is it so hard for scientists to talk about leaving academia?” is an article that touches on this question I’ve asked myself many times, and for which there are plenty of (usually external) reasons and factors weighing in on the answer. Looking back, I experienced none of this reticence when thinking about what to do next after High-school or University. Why should it be different after finishing a PhD or a postdoc?

If you think about it, most Universities regularly organize workshops and fairs on “Alternative” Careers. The thing is I don’t recall signing anywhere or committing at any point that starting a PhD meant that Academia was The Career to pursue, that Academia was the path to follow, and that becoming a Professor was where this path “led to”. Come to think of it, I am not sure of how many attendees of such an event would be persuaded by a representative of “Academia” trying to sell the joys of a life in science right now: Come do what you love and get paid for it, oh dear undergraduate! You’ll travel the world and meet extraordinary people! Some might be arseholes. You may get less money than a regular job. You may also enjoy less benefits, work longer hours, and live in fear of not knowing what you will do next (and where)!

I think it’s time we drop the “Alternative Careers” notion altogether and remove once and for all the sense of failure or remorse still attributed to deviating from the path. As the author of “Why it is not a “failure” to leave academia” puts it, “if everyone involved in academic science could accept a variety of roles as the default outcome, we could change our flawed definition of success”. After all, at the end of any career stage (be it High-school, University, or X number of years at any job) you should be free to consider what the best next step for you would be taking into account all you have learned and all the skills you have gained that you didn’t know or have when you started whatever it is that you are doing now.

How Life Sciences Actually Work

Don’t get me wrong, doing science can be a wonderful and exhilarating experience, but working in academia is far from the ideal job, and many things need to change for that to be the case. “How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation” and “Coming to terms with six years in science: obsession, isolation, and moments of wonder” may give you a glimpse of some of these things. This other essay, “Surviving as an Underrepresented Minority Scientist“, helped me reflect on the takeaways of the previous articles and on my own experience through a different prism and perspective, an exercise that should be routine for all of us.

Another of the widespread problems I believe is hindering change for the better and one that has become increasingly annoying to hear over the years, is that of the incentives. Or, in other words, how people justify to themselves (and others) carrying on with things that are clearly wrong for the only reason that “this is how the System works” (a System that they will agree is broken anyway) or that “everyone else does it”. The following article was a really good take on this: “No, it’s not The Incentives – it’s you“.

A recent take on the structural problems of life sciences that rippled through the Twittesphere earlier this year is “Can Twitter Save Science?“, a piece that touches on how postdoctoral fellows became the workhorses of life science research, why scientific journals are one of the greatest positional scarcity business models, and why Twitter is so great for science.

You and Your Research, and other unrelated essays

We are getting closer to the end. But before we reach the point of going our separate ways, I wanted to deliver a small collection of unrelated quasi-randomly selected essays to your digital doorstep. The first one is “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life“, a more positive take on science and academia, and how setting your own terms and conditions (and having a “feelgood” email folder among other things) can change things for the better for you. On a similar trend, if you’ve ever experienced burnout, or even if you haven’t, you should probably read “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation“.

A totally unconnected article to the two above is this manifesto for preserving content on the web, “This Page is Designed to Last“, which attempts to provoke us into thinking about how we are going about designing long-lasting websites. An even more unconnected article, and one we can only access with a jump through an improbability field, is this philosophical take “On Being an Arsehole“. I’ll actually let you explore that one on your own, it will hopefully surprise you.

Taking us to the home stretch of this streak of unrelated reads we have “The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius“, a beautiful essay on a recipe for genius, and “You and Your Research“, the transcript of a talk by Richard Hamming on “Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”.

Nothing to do about science

Although most of these articles revolve around scientific research and academia (because that’s what I happen to currently work on), I’d like to end with four articles that will hopefully take you on unexpected trips outside of our tiny corner of the world and show you things we rarely turn our neurons to. “China’s Hidden Camps” takes us to the results of a BBC investigation on the mass re-education programme that’s been going on in China, whereas “Coming out of the shadows: what it means to be French and Chinese“, a long read published in The Guardian, delves into the violence and prejudice people of Chinese descent have long faced in France. Both are impressive works that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Another long read in The Guardian deals with a very different topic. “The Murder that Shook Iceland” brings us to a country with one of the lowest murder rates in the world, and lays down the story of the murder that gripped the country for a week. Finally, the last piece takes us from Iceland to the Postojna Cave in Slovenia, home of the fascinating olms, or baby dragons. In “What’s Behind Slovenia’s Love Affair with a Salamander” we learn about this fantastic species of salamander, their flat head and unpigmented skin, their century-long lives, and their central role in the mythology of Central Europe and the Balkans.

I sincerely hope some of the articles above piqued your interest. And as promised, the much-awaited finale for list-lovers like me (in order of appearance):

  1. Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much, by Kathryn Clancy in National Geography (2018) [link]
  2. “Enough is Enough”: Science, Too, Has a Problem With Harassment, by Amy Harmon in The New York Times (2018) [link]
  3. Sexism in the Academy, by Troy Vettese in n+1 Magazine (2019) [link]
  4. Why is it so hard for scientists to talk about leaving academia? by Prabarna Ganguly in Massive (2018) [link]
  5. Why it is not a “failure” to leave academia, by Philipp Kruger in Nature (2018) [link]
  6. How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation, by Alexey Guzey (2019) [link]
  7. Coming to terms with six years in science: obsession, isolation, and moments of wonder, by Justin Chen in Stat (2018) [link]
  8. Surviving as an Underrepresented Minority Scientist, by Erich D. Jarvis (2016) [link]
  9. No, it’s not The Incentives – it’s you, by Tal Yarkoni (2018) [link]
  10. Can Twitter Save Science? by Alex Danco (2020) [link]
  11. The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life, by Radhika Nagpal in Scientific American (2013) [link]
  12. How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen in BuzzFeed (2019) [link]
  13. This Page is Designed to Last, by Jeff Huang (2019) [link]
  14. On Being an Arsehole, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point (2018) [link]
  15. The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius, by Paul Graham (2019) [link]
  16. You and Your Research, by Richard Hamming (1986) [link 1 | link 2]
  17. China’s Hidden Camps, by John Sudworth in BBC News (2018) [link]
  18. Coming out of the shadows: what it means to be French and Chinese, by Tash Aw in The Guardian (2019) [link]
  19. The Murder that Shook Iceland, by Xan Rice in The Guardian (2018) [link]
  20. What’s Behind Slovenia’s Love Affair with a Salamander, by Meehan Crist in The New Yorker (2016) [link]

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